CBS NEWS: Each week, “60 Minutes” viewers could expect the master interviewer to ask the questions they wanted answered by the world’s leaders and headliners. Wallace did not disappoint them, often revealing more than the public ever hoped to see. He got the stoic Ayatollah Khomeini to smile during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 when he asked him what he thought about being called “a lunatic” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The Ayatollah answered by correctly predicting that Sadat would be assassinated.
The same year, Johnny Carson called Wallace “cruel” during an interview after Wallace asked, “It takes one to know one?” when the late-night star took pity on an alcoholic newsmaker. Her fans protested when Wallace brought Barbra Streisand to the emotional edge in 1991 by revealing that her own mother had told him that Barbara “was too busy to get close to anyone.”
Wallace was also known for pioneering the “ambush” interview, presenting his unsuspecting interviewee with evidence of malfeasance – often obtained by hidden camera – then capturing the stunned reaction. Two of the more famous exposes in this genre that used hidden cameras were investigations of a phony cancer clinic and a laboratory offering Medicaid kickbacks to doctors. Presenting interviewees with their own misdeeds became a “60 Minutes” staple, but the hidden camera and ambush were later shunned as they were widely imitated, and even Wallace admitted their use was to “create heat, rather than light.”
No story generated more controversy than Wallace’s 1998 interview with euthanasia practitioner Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Wallace and “60 Minutes” took heat for broadcasting Kevorkian’s own tape showing him lethally injecting a man suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The death of Thomas Youk broadcast on “60 Minutes” made headlines and the editorial pages, generating discussion about euthanasia for weeks. The tape also served as evidence to convict Kevorkian of murder.
In another controversy, Wallace’s 1995 interview of Jeffrey Wigand, the highest-ranking tobacco executive to turn whistle-blower, was held back for fear of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit that could have bankrupted CBS. The interview, in which Wigand revealed tobacco executives knew and covered up the fact that tobacco caused disease, was eventually broadcast on “60 Minutes” in February 1996. The incident became the subject of the film, “The Insider” (in which Wallace was played by Christopher Plummer). MORE
LOS ANGELES TIMES: In the early 1980s, Coors beer took out newspaper ads that read: “The Four Most Dreaded Words in the English Language: Mike Wallace Is Here.” Wallace’s tenacious spirit and blistering questions helped build “60 Minutes” into a ratings juggernaut as well as establish the program as the gold standard for broadcast journalism. Although down from its zenith three decades ago, when some 40 million people would tune in on Sunday nights for the stories that followed the familiar tick, tick, tick, the program has remained in the top 10 of the Nielsen rankings for an unprecedented 23 seasons. MORE